There are some exhibitions that you know you want to see in person, but don’t really know how lucky you are to have seen it until days or weeks later. I have a lot to say about the retrospective of Tracey Emin: Love Is What You Want, currently on view at The Hayward Gallery in London through August 29, and I’m going to try to unpack it as unclumsily as possible.
Emin is a household name in England, but is not generally known in the US outside of artist’s circles. In the early nineties, she was considered one of the YBA’s, the Young British Artists. She rocketed to fame/infamy in 1997 after being included in Charles Scaatchi’s “Sensation” exhibit. She has been considered overrated, hyperexposed, under-developed, hacky, provincial, lowbrow, and vulgar. The fact that she has weathered the criticisms and continued to produce work in the face of them says a lot.
When people do know who she is, they know her as the Bed girl. Or the Tent girl. In her sculpture Everyone I Have Ever Slept With (1963-1995) Emin appliquéd the interior of a tent with all the names. In 1999, she exhibited My Bed, which showed her unmade bed with soiled sheets and used condoms. And with those two pieces, most people saw her as nothing more than a one-note shock artist.
But not people like me, art students who were undergrads when Emin rose to fame. Her work, like much of the YBA’s, really informed our understanding of how to create a narrative, how far we could push things, and how much we were allowed to expose of ourselves. It wasn’t just us; the whole of the 90’s was alive with a new and earnest sense of political and personal introspection as a place to start larger discussions.
Her work fascinated me. I first saw some of her blankets in 1996 at the “Brilliant!” show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Whereas I was annoyed at Damien Hirst’s vacuum cleaners in formaldehyde (and seriously, who wouldn’t be), I had a strong positive reaction to Emin’s work. It was funny and serious and used common language and common objects. And it was so personal. All of us, especially female art students, discovered for ourselves what had started in the 1970’s with the Feminist art movement. But this wasn’t Judy Chicago or Miriam Shapiro or Womanhouse. This was electrified art made by people close to our age. The Bad Girls show happened in 1994 and the Guerrilla Girls were still a force. We all “discovered” Cindy Sherman and Jenny Holzer and Frida Kahlo and Nan Goldin, and co-opted their style and meaning. The power of the mirror, to gaze and reflect, was electric.
Specific to my work, I learned from Emin (among others) how to make highly personal, somewhat autobiographical work. Any critic who loathes Emin’s work cannot say that she isn’t ruthlessly fearless about using her body or experiences as a vehicle to make her work. There is no filter it seems to what she does or says. Everything is fair game. I tell my students that bad art gives answers; good art asks questions. Where her work succeeds where others fall flat is that she has always been willing to show the least flattering parts of herself. That, more than anything else, is what facilitates conversation and continues the dialogue, rather than throwing out statements and walking out of the gallery.
The retrospective at The Hayward Gallery is intense, but it’s one of the most comprehensive exhibitions I’ve seen in a while. Even the gallery guide is a small booklet explaining at length what each room was about. It takes a good two hours to give the show a proper viewing, which is about right. Misia had no idea who she was before the show, but came away with a good understanding of who Emin was personally and professionally. The exhibit spirals and curls throughout the gallery until you are completely in her world, understanding her frame of reference, and appreciating the beauty of her mark making. Much has been made of Emin as a shock artist, yet hardly anyone speaks of her hand, her delicate embroidery, and the deftness of her economy of line.
Love Is What You Want opened a lot of memory doors for me. I can’t stop thinking about my first few years at art school, when I could physically feel my brain understanding new concepts, when I thought I was inventing imagery that had never been seen or thought of before. Seeing Emin track and trace her artistic progression, warts and all, is refreshing and important.
My Friend Anya supplied me with some links to articles about Emin from the UK perspective, and they are well worth a read: